Rachel Grunwell is a fitness writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Fitness Challenge: Exercise for golden oldies

Rachel Grunwell joins an exercise class in a retirement village.
Rachel Grunwell joins an exercise class in a retirement village.

Exercise for golden oldies

What is it? Keeping active in the later years.

What's needed? Comfortable gear.

The experience: Use it, or lose it. Your body and brain-power, that is. Research shows that being active helps kick more than just calories. It can help lift your mood and also, importantly, help offset issues in the later years such as heart problems and dementia.

You are never too old to begin to exercise and derive health benefits from it.
Nicki Brown

This country's ageing population is rising and so too are the numbers of Kiwis with dementia. Check out these statistics:

Last year's Census shows that there are 607,000 New Zealanders in the over-65 age group.

By 2036 this population is projected to rise to 1.2 million. And it is estimated (alzheimers.org.nz) that 53,000 Kiwis have dementia. And this number is forecast to triple by 2050. Alzheimer's New Zealand executive director Catherine Hall says her advice to those entering their golden years is to eat a healthy diet, limit alcohol, keep stimulated by doing activities and "to keep your brain engaged".

Meanwhile, for those who think moving into a resthome equals slowing down and a decline in health, this is not necessarily so, says clinical exercise psychologist Nicki Brown.

She tracked a sample group of residents at 13 New Zealand Ryman Healthcare villages and found they had become more active since moving to their villages, where fitness and educations sessions are held.

Brown devised the sessions and monitored the results as part of her thesis. She says she measured the physical activity levels of 70 people before they moved and then eight weeks later.

She found they had exercised more since moving into their new communities, which she attributes to the company offering regular free fitness and education sessions.

She says the sessions are all about keeping residents mobile and strong to prevent falls and balance problems and she includes "brain exercises" as well. She says the sessions are giving residents "a new lease on life".

Some Ryman villages offer her fitness and education sessions twice weekly, and others run them five days weekly.

I checked out the programme at the Edmund Hillary Retirement Village in Remuera.

The class is full of residents meeting mates and moving to music.

No fancy labels; rather it is crisp, ironed shirts, knee-length shorts, and pulled-up socks with respectable footwear.

There is even a 90-year-old who loves to come along.

I do most of the workout with Colin Austin, 76, a former traffic cop. The session is like a circuit-style class. The instructor tinkles a bell between each workout station, drowning out the jazz music. I walk with weights around a rose garden, sit on a chair lifting hand weights, twirl a Maori poi (good for wrist movement, co-ordination), bounce a ball backwards and forwards with Colin, and do strength work with a medicine ball. If residents tire they can sit at any time, and those wanting more of a challenge add weights to the routine.

One brain exercise involves reading a sentence above an alphabet chart and tapping at all the letters involved as quickly as possible.

When the work stations are done, everyone comes into the middle of the room and an instructor takes us through some stepping and clapping sequences then a warm-down.

The room is full of gentle movement, music, and mates keeping active. Magic.

Nicki tells me she loves seeing people prove that "you are never too old to begin to exercise and derive health benefits from it".

How much: Free sessions if you are in a Ryman village.

Worth it? I suspect the exercise classes at the village I visited are a highlight for some.

Try it: www.rymanhealthcare.co.nz

Rating: 9/10

- Herald on Sunday

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